William Howard Taft

1857–1930

William Howard Taft was the 27th President of the United States and later served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Known for his legal expertise, he held many significant positions, including Governor-General of the Philippines and Secretary of War. During his career, he implemented important reforms in antitrust laws and conservation.

President William Howard Taft, Portrait

William Howard Taft. Image Source: White House.

Essential Facts

  • William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Taft served as the 27th President of the United States from 1909 to 1913.
  • He served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court from 1921 to 1930.
  • Taft was Governor-General of the Philippines (1901-1904).
  • He was Secretary of War (1904-1908).
  • Taft implemented significant antitrust and conservation reforms as President.
  • He played a role in the construction of the Panama Canal and international diplomacy.
  • Taft supported the establishment of the League of Nations but had reservations.
  • He was married to Helen Herron and they had three children.
  • Taft was a descendant of Thomas Hooker, who founded Connecticut.

Significance to American History

William Howard Taft is important to American History for his contributions as President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. As President, he strengthened antitrust enforcement and conservation efforts, laying the groundwork for future progressive reforms. His tenure as Chief Justice is notable for improving the efficiency of the Supreme Court. Taft’s career exemplifies a blend of judicial and executive service, highlighting his commitment to both legal principles and public administration. His actions in the Philippines and various diplomatic roles underscore his influence on U.S. foreign policy during a transformative era.

Life and Career

William Howard Taft served as the 17th President of the United States from 1909 to 1913. Despite being chosen by his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft possessed a different level of public appeal. Nonetheless, he achieved several important domestic policy successes during his time as President.

Taft was more interested in law and justice than in politics, which eventually led to a rift between him and Roosevelt, as well as with the progressive wing of the Republican Party. This division contributed to his loss in the subsequent election.

After his presidency, Taft realized his lifelong ambition of serving in the judiciary. He became the Chief Justice of the United States, making him the only person to have held both the highest executive and judicial offices in the country. 

Before his presidency, Taft also held significant roles as the Governor-General of the Philippines and as the Secretary of War.

Early Life and Education

William Howard Taft was born in 1857 in Mount Auburn, which is now a part of Cincinnati, Ohio. 

He was the third of six children in the Taft family.

His father, Alphonso Taft, was a prominent lawyer and judge who held several significant positions in the Federal Government. Alphonso served as Secretary of War and Attorney General under President Ulysses S. Grant, and later as Minister to Austria-Hungary and Russia under President Chester A. Arthur. 

Taft received his early education in public schools and excelled academically, graduating second in his class from Woodward High School in Cincinnati, where he studied from 1870 to 1874. He continued his education at Yale University from 1874 to 1878, where he graduated as the class salutatorian. 

Taft Attends Law School and Works as a Court Reporter

During the summer after his graduation, he studied law at his father’s law firm and then enrolled at Cincinnati Law School in the fall. To support himself, he worked as a court reporter for the Cincinnati Commercial. In 1880, Taft earned his law degree and was admitted to the bar.

Taft Enters Politics

Taft’s involvement in politics started around this time. His active participation in the Republican Party led to his appointment as assistant prosecutor of Hamilton County from 1881 to 1882. 

Soon after, President Arthur appointed him as the District Collector of Internal Revenue from 1882 to 1883. 

From late 1883 until 1887, William Howard Taft practiced law and became actively involved in politics. 

In 1885, he started serving as the Assistant County Solicitor.

Visit to Europe and Marriage

During the summer and fall of 1883, Taft took a break to visit his parents, who were then diplomats in Vienna and traveled throughout Europe.

In 1886, Taft married Helen Herron, the daughter of a prominent state Republican leader. They had three children: two sons and one daughter.

Appointment to Ohio Superior Court

In 1887, Taft was appointed to a vacancy on the Ohio Superior Court. The following year, he successfully ran for the position, marking the only election he ever participated in apart from the presidency. He served as a judge on the Ohio Superior Court until 1890.

Taft Meets Theodore Roosevelt

Taft’s next major role was as the U.S. Solicitor General from 1890 to 1892, and he briefly served as Acting Attorney General under President Benjamin Harrison. 

During this time, he met Theodore Roosevelt, who was then the Civil Service Commissioner. 

From 1892 to 1900, Taft served as a federal judge for the Sixth Circuit, which included Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and Tennessee. Although he often ruled in favor of labor, his issuance of antistrike injunctions earned him a reputation as being against labor unions.

While serving as a federal judge, Taft also taught part-time and served as the Dean of Cincinnati Law School from 1896 to 1900.

Service in the Philippines and Secretary of War

After President William McKinley promised William Howard Taft a future seat on the Supreme Court, Taft was appointed in 1900 to lead a civilian governmental commission in the Philippines. 

The Philippines had become a U.S. territory following the Spanish-American War in 1898. Although Taft was initially opposed to the annexation, he believed that the Filipinos needed guidance before achieving independence, which could not be realized until ongoing insurrections were ended. 

As Governor-General of the Philippines from 1901 to 1904, Taft promoted limited self-government, reformed the judicial system, and improved infrastructure by building roads, harbors, and schools. He also worked on economic improvements and land reforms.

Taft felt a strong sense of responsibility toward the Filipino people and twice declined President Theodore Roosevelt’s offer of a Supreme Court appointment, believing his work in the Philippines was not yet complete. 

In early 1904, Taft became the Secretary of War under Roosevelt but continued to support the Philippines. Known for his administrative skills and ability to resolve conflicts, he undertook several significant assignments for Roosevelt. 

  • Taft oversaw the early construction of the Panama Canal.
  • Taft participated in a diplomatic mission to Tokyo.
  • Taft served as Provisional Governor of Cuba to help stabilize the country during internal conflicts.

Taft Becomes the 27th President of the United States

Although William Howard Taft preferred a position on the Supreme Court, his family and President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded him to accept the Republican Presidential nomination in 1908. 

Taft did not like campaigning and lacked Roosevelt’s personality, but his conservative judicial approach resonated with many voters. He won the election against William Jennings Bryan by a significant margin of over a million votes.

Taft’s Accomplishments as President:

During his single term as President, the Taft Administration had some important achievements:

  • Taft initiated more antitrust lawsuits than Roosevelt.
  • He actively pursued conservation efforts. 
  • Taft secured legislation to withdraw millions of acres of federal land from public sale.
  • He ordered a study to identify which lands should be protected, however, he rescinded a previous order reserving lands for potential public dam sites. 
  • Taft also established the Bureau of Mines within the Department of the Interior to safeguard mineral deposits and supported a bond issue for irrigation projects.
  • Taft’s presidency saw the expansion of the Interstate Commerce Commission’s power over the communications industry and the establishment of railroad rates. 
  • He advocated for and implemented a modest tax on corporate earnings, promoted government economy, and formed a commission to study federal finances. 
  • Taft signed campaign reform legislation, extended the Civil Service merit system, and created the parcel post and postal savings systems. 
  • He also oversaw the creation of a Children’s Bureau in the Department of Commerce and Labor.

Support for the Federal Income Tax

One of Taft’s significant achievements was his support for the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, which authorized a federal tax on personal income. 

Westward Expansion

Additionally, during his administration, Arizona and New Mexico were admitted to the Union, completing the establishment of the 48 contiguous states, which helped fulfill America’s Manifest Destiny.

Challenges and Criticisms of President Taft

Despite his accomplishments, William Howard Taft faced significant challenges during his presidency due to his legalistic approach and increasing reliance on Republican congressional leaders. This approach alienated many reformers within his party. 

Payne Aldrich Tariff

Taft aimed to compromise on tariff reductions but defended the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909, which disappointed progressives who wanted lower rates to challenge monopolies further.

Taft Dismisses Gifford Pinchot

Taft’s reputation as an anti-conservationist grew when he dismissed Gifford Pinchot, the chief of the Forest Service and a close ally of Theodore Roosevelt. Pinchot had publicly clashed with Taft and Secretary of the Interior Richard A. Ballinger over policy matters, leading to his dismissal and further alienating Taft’s progressive supporters.

Dollar Diplomacy — Taft’s Foreign Policy

In foreign affairs, Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” in the Far East and Latin America, which aimed to promote American financial and business interests abroad, drew criticism. The U.S. faced backlash for inaction against Japanese and Russian expansion in Manchuria and for intervening in Nicaragua to ensure political and financial stability. 

Taft also experienced diplomatic setbacks, such as the failure of a tariff reciprocity treaty with Canada, which Canadians rejected due to fears of annexation. Additionally, arbitration agreements with France and Great Britain to resolve international disputes were heavily amended by the Senate, leading to their eventual withdrawal by an embarrassed Taft.

1912 Presidential Election

Accusations of abandoning meaningful reform led to Theodore Roosevelt seeking the Republican nomination in 1912. After losing to Taft, Roosevelt left the Republican Party and ran as the Progressive Party — or Bull Moose Party — candidate, causing a split that ensured the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Taft finished third in the election, behind Wilson and Roosevelt.

Legal Career After Leaving the White House

After his presidency, William Howard Taft returned to his legal career and academia. From 1913 to 1921, he was a professor of constitutional law at Yale University. 

Taft During World War I

When World War I began in Europe in 1914, Taft initially supported U.S. neutrality. However, by 1916, he endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Charles Evans Hughes. 

During the war, Taft contributed to the U.S. effort by cochairing the National War Labor Board from 1918 to 1919. Although he had some reservations, he also supported President Woodrow Wilson’s proposal for the League of Nations.

Philanthropy and Writing

In addition to his academic and legal work, Taft was involved in various philanthropic and educational institutions, including the American Red Cross, Yale University, and Hampton Institute. He was a prolific writer and lecturer, with his works published in books, magazines, and newspapers.

Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, fulfilling Taft’s long-held ambition. He served in this role from 1921 to 1930, working diligently to streamline the Court’s operations. 

Retirement and Death

Taft retired in 1930 due to declining health and passed away a month later in Washington, D.C.

Key Moments

  • 1857 — Born in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • 1878 — Graduated as class salutatorian from Yale University.
  • 1880 — Earned a law degree from Cincinnati Law School.
  • 1887 — Appointed to the Ohio Superior Court.
  • 1900 — Led a civilian governmental commission in the Philippines.
  • 1901–1904 — Served as Governor-General of the Philippines.
  • 1904 — Became Secretary of War.
  • 1909–1913 — Served as the 27th President of the United States.
  • 1921–1930 — Appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
  • 1930 — Passed away in Washington, D.C.

Vocabulary

These terms and definitions are relevant to the life and career of William Howard Taft and provide more context about the 27th President.

People

  • Chester A. Arthur — 21st President of the United States.
  • William Jennings Bryan — A prominent American politician who ran for President multiple times, known for his populist and progressive views.
  • Warren G. Harding — 29th President of the United States.
  • Thomas Hooker — Founder of the Connecticut Colony. An ancestor of Taft.
  • Theodore Roosevelt — 26th President of the United States.

Events

  • Spanish-American War — A conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States, resulting in the U.S. acquisition of territories like Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
  • World War I — The first global conflict of the 20th Century. The United States entered World War I in 1917.

Laws

  • Payne-Aldrich Tariff — A 1909 law that raised certain tariffs on goods entering the United States, which progressives opposed.
  • Sixteenth Amendment — An amendment to the U.S. Constitution that allows the federal government to levy an income tax.

Organizations

  • American Red Cross — A humanitarian organization that provides emergency assistance, disaster relief, and education in the United States.
  • Bull Moose Party — The Progressive Party, which nominated Theodore Roosevelt as its candidate for the 1912 Presidential Election.
  • Bureau of Mines — An agency within the Department of the Interior focused on the conservation and development of mineral resources.
  • Children’s Bureau — An agency within the Department of Commerce and Labor focused on the welfare of children.
  • Cincinnati Law School — An institution where Taft taught and served as dean; now part of the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
  • Department of the Interior — A federal department responsible for the management and conservation of federal land and natural resources.
  • Forest Service — A federal agency that manages public lands in national forests and grasslands.
  • Interstate Commerce Commission — A regulatory agency in the United States created to oversee railroad rates and later expanded to regulate other modes of transportation and communications.
  • League of Nations — An international organization established after World War I to promote peace and cooperation among countries.
  • National War Labor Board — A federal agency created during World War I to prevent labor disputes from disrupting the war effort.
  • Ohio Superior Court — A state court in Ohio where Taft served as a judge.
  • United States Supreme Court — The highest judicial court in the United States.
  • Yale University — An Ivy League university where Taft taught constitutional law after his presidency.

Government Positions

  • Acting Attorney General — A temporary position filled by someone who acts as the Attorney General until a permanent appointment is made.
  • Assistant County Solicitor — A legal officer who assists in providing legal advice and representation to a county.
  • Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — The head of the United States Supreme Court, responsible for overseeing the federal judiciary.
  • Civil Service Commissioner — An official responsible for overseeing the merit-based selection of government employees.
  • District Collector of Internal Revenue — An official responsible for collecting federal taxes within a specific district.
  • Federal judge for the Sixth Circuit — A judge who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, covering several states.
  • Governor-General — The chief executive of a colonial or territorial administration.
  • Governor-General of the Philippines — The highest-ranking official in the Philippines during American colonial rule, responsible for administration and governance.
  • Minister to Austria-Hungary and Russia — A diplomatic position representing the United States in Austria-Hungary and Russia.
  • Provisional Governor — A temporary governor appointed to stabilize a region during a period of transition or crisis.
  • Secretary of War — A government position responsible for overseeing the United States Army and military affairs. It is now part of the Department of Defense.
  • U.S. Solicitor General — A legal officer who represents the United States before the Supreme Court.

Topics

  • Annexation — The process of adding a territory to a country.
  • Antistrike Injunction — A court order that prohibits workers from striking.
  • Antitrust Lawsuits — Legal actions taken to prevent or dismantle monopolies and promote competition.
  • Civil Service Merit System — A system of hiring and promoting government employees based on merit rather than political affiliation.
  • Class Salutatorian — The student with the second-highest academic rank in a graduating class who typically delivers the salutatory address at commencement.
  • Conservation — The protection and preservation of natural resources.
  • Constitutional Law — A body of law dealing with the interpretation and implementation of the United States Constitution.
  • Dollar Diplomacy — A U.S. foreign policy aimed at promoting American financial and business interests abroad.
  • Insurrection — A violent uprising against an authority or government.
  • Neutrality — The policy of not taking sides in a conflict.
  • Parcel Post System — A postal service that allows the shipment of packages through the mail.
  • Philanthropic Institutions — Organizations dedicated to promoting the welfare of others, often through charitable donations and social initiatives.
  • Postal Savings System — A system that provided savings accounts through the postal service.
  • Reciprocity Treaty — An agreement between countries to mutually reduce tariffs or other trade barriers.
  • Self-Government — The ability of a people or territory to govern themselves with limited external interference.
  • Tariff — A tax imposed on imported goods.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title William Howard Taft
  • Date 1857–1930
  • Author
  • Keywords William Howard Taft, Who was William Howard Taft, What did William Howard Taft accomplish as President, When was William Howard Taft President, Where was William Howard Taft born, Why did William Howard Taft have a falling out with Theodore Roosevelt, How did William Howard Taft become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date July 22, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update June 23, 2024

Taxonomies